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Posts Tagged ‘Nathuram Godse’

Los Angeles, 30 January 2018

On this day, seventy years ago, Mohandas Gandhi was felled by three bullets from a gun fired by Nathuram Godse, a Chitpavan Brahmin who nursed a number of grudges against the man anointed as the “Father of the Nation”.  Most people in India mourned; some cheered.  More than a few held him chiefly responsible for the vivisection of India and declared that he, more than Muhammad Iqbal or Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had played a critical role in birthing Pakistan; in the days before his death, Gandhi had been taunted by some as “The Father of Pakistan”.  Godse held that Gandhi was an effete man whose womanly ways and petulant behavior, which led the old man to fast whenever he could not get his way, had emasculated the country.  Thus, in Godse’s view, Gandhi deserved to die.

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Nathuram Godse. Getty Image.

Unlike, however, those who at present rejoice in Gandhi’s death, even as they garland his statues and mouth the customary platitudes about his “continuing relevance”, Godse was quite candid in holding forth that India could never become a powerful nation-state that the rest of the world might envy so long as Gandhi was alive to guide the country’s destinies.  Godse was also genuinely reverential in his feelings towards Gandhi, a part of his story that is little recognized:  the Mahatma loved the nation and had awakened the slumbering masses, so Godse thought, but he had deviated from the path and gone astray.  Gandhi, that inveterate user of trains, had derailed the country.  His murder would be the first step in the yet unnamed project of ghar wapsi:  even as Gandhi was being returned to his Maker, the country would supposedly be returned to its roots.

Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents described the battle within everyone between eros (the instinct to love) and the death wish (thanatos).  While we need not be beholden to Freud’s precise reading of the death wish, it may be said that, in a peculiar way, Gandhi did not mind being killed.  By this I do not merely mean what most who are familiar with Gandhi’s life will at once infer, namely that he often spoke in the last few years of his life, and particularly in the aftermath of the partition killings, of having lost the desire to live.  He had a premonition of his own death; and, yet, he had also said on more than one occasion that he wished to live until he was 125 years old.

I have in mind something quite different.  Though there have been many compelling interpretations of his life, Gandhi has increasingly struck me as someone who felt himself at sea in the world.  Everyone has her or his own Gandhi:  political activists, nudists, vegetarians, environmentalists, prohibitionists, civil resisters, and pacifists are only some among the dozens of constituencies that have claimed him as their own and sometimes even adopted him as their mascot.  It is time for the homeless to claim him as their own, though we should first strive to unravel a few of the meanings of home and dispossession.  We often make a home and dispossess others by our act.  The home that we long for, when realized, suddenly loses all its attractions.  Our home might come to burden or haunt us, creating other forms of dispossession.  Our actual home may well be elsewhere than the home in which we live.  We may be at home in not being at home at all, and the home that we call home may have no relation to the home that is in the heart.  That home with which we draw a boundary to keep out others becomes more than a marker of territory, helping shape conceptions of the outside and the inside, the other and the self, the alien and the familiar. We may, like the reluctant exile, gain a political home and lose our cultural home.  We may have several homes, and yet feel dispossessed; or we may have no home at all, and feel that the world is at our fingertips.

Gandhi’s life offers fleeting impressions of someone who, even as his feet were firmly planted on the ground, was curiously unmoored.  For much the greater part of his adult life, Gandhi was bereft of a family home, sharing not even an extended family home that was overwhelmingly the norm in his lifetime.  He shared his life not merely with Kasturba and their sons but with dozens and often hundreds of inmates in communes and ashrams, and was deeply resented by some members of his family for being insufficiently attentive to them and their needs.  If, for instance, the notion of home implies the idea of a private sphere, Gandhi displayed not merely indifference to the idea of privacy but was inclined to see it as a species of secrecy and thus deception.  It cannot be an accident that, having vowed not to return to Sabarmati Ashram until India had been delivered from the shackles of colonial rule, Gandhi went on the Dandi March and then drifted around, somewhat like a homeless man, for a few years until he settled upon Wardha in central India.  In early April 1936, he set himself up in the desperately poor and mosquito-infested village of Segaon, which then had a population of less than 700.  Segaon had the virtue only of being, it is said, the dead center of India, home to everything and nothing.

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Gandhi in Noakhali, 1946:  When No One Walks With You, Walk Alone.

Gandhi was beginning to feel homeless in the India that was taking shape even before partition tore apart his country and his heart alike.  He was an early critic of what in post-World War II would begin to be called “development”; but he was also, and this is the greater irony, in view of his role as the chief architect of the Indian independence struggle, never at home with the idea of the nation-state.  No nationalist was less invested in the nation-state that he had helped to forge.  That is one of the measures of his greatness and of his distinct mode of being (at home) in the world.  Gandhi had once appealed to Ambedkar to put aside their differences and work him in the interest of the country, and Ambedkar famously replied, “Mahatmaji, I have no country.”  Little could Ambedkar have known that Gandhi would just become his statues.  We can in any case think of their exchange as the most extraordinary recorded conversation between two homeless men.

 

[This is a slightly revised version of a piece published in the print and online editions of the Indian Express on 30 January 1948; in the print edition, the piece appears on p. 1; the online version is here: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/mahatma-gandhi-jayanti-father-of-the-nation-5044076/]

[The online version of the piece as it appears in the Indian Express of course invites comments from readers.  One reader remarked that, in highlighting the fact that Nathuram was a Chitpavan Brahmin, I was clearly displaying my prejudice against Hindus.  This is not even remotely the case, though the culture of trolling has now made it far too easy for people to engage in slander, cant, and humbug.  It is not unimportant that Nathuram Godse came from a Chitpavan Brahmin background: not only were there other attempts on Gandhi’s life by Chitpavan Brahmins, but the community as a whole felt especially aggrieved at the loss of its power as a consequence of British rule.  Having a Gujarati bania such as Gandhi at the helm of power was not calculated to make Chitpavans, who bemoaned the loss of their masculinity, feel emboldened as the sun began to set on British rule in India. But an extended commentary on all this is scarcely necessary, since Ashis Nandy’s “Final Encounter:  On the Politics of the Assassination of Gandhi”, offers a complex and brilliant interpretation of the sources of Chitpavan Brahmin anxiety about Gandhi.  Another reader, quite predictably, counsels that my piece may be ignored since it stems from the pen of a Non-Resident Indian.  Gandhi himself spent over 20 years in South Africa, and I suppose that some nationalist Hindus are still inclined to take the view that Gandhi remained a foreigner to India.]

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On the evening of 30 January 1948, Mohandas Gandhi, known the world over as the “Mahatma” and in India as “Bapu”, was assassinated as he walked towards the prayer ground at Birla House.  Nathuram Godse, a Maharashtrian Brahmin from Pune, fired three bullets from a revolver and Gandhi died instantly.  Godse was wrestled to the ground by a couple of onlookers; but he had no intention of escaping, and was indeed keen that he should be apprehended alive and have his say in court.  This was one of the many things that Godse learned from Gandhi, for whom he had a curious admixture of reverence and hatred:  the courtroom can be commanded to great advantage by the accused, and the audience might even be swayed into believing that the accused had just cause.

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John Keane, “Experiments with Truth” (1996), oil and collage on canvas.  Source:  http://www.johnkeaneart.com/index.php/welcome/cat/31/2/2

Nathuram Godse was no doubt assisted in his plans by a motley group of men who had various reasons for harboring a real grudge against Gandhi.  The Government of India insisted that there had been a conspiracy to murder the “Father of the Nation” and Vinayak Savarkar was thought to have been the brains behind the conspiracy.  But Godse remained unequivocally clear to the end of his life that he alone bore responsibility for Gandhi’s death.  Godse did nothing to exculpate himself and sought to shift the blame from others who also stood accused of having conspired to murder Gandhi.  Some of the supposed conspirators were released for lack of evidence, among them Savarkar; a few others, including Nathuram’s younger brother Gopal, were handed stiff prison terms; and Nathuram and Narayan Apte were sent to the gallows.

The indubitable fact, of course, is that Nathuram Godse alone pulled the trigger.  He was the sole assassin.  If that is the case, the alert reader might wonder why the title of the piece adverts to Gandhi’s “assassins”.  In speaking of his assassins, I do not intend to revisit the debate, which persisted for a very long time, about the supposed conspiracy that felled Gandhi.   There can be little doubt that Savarkar, who had a long and unsavory history of instrumentalizing other men in the pursuit of his own political objectives, was something of an ideological bulwark for Nathuram and others of his ilk.  Justice Jivanlal Kapur, who headed a one-man commission in 1966 to inquire into Gandhi’s assassination following some disclosures that various government officials may have been negligent in safeguarding Gandhi’s life, conducted an extensive probe and issued a lengthy report in 1969 where he stated that the facts that had come to his attention “taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.”

I would like to suggest both that Nathuram Godse was fundamentally right in accepting sole culpability for Gandhi’s death and that Justice Kapur underestimated the degree to which Gandhi’s death was, in the words of his biographer Robert Payne, a “permissive assassination”.  The word ‘conspiracy’ is not particularly conducive to a discussion which would allow us to understand the circumstances which, as it were, conspired to lead to Gandhi’s death and which apparently make it necessary to murder Gandhi all over again.  The Government of India was drawing upon the colonial apparatus of law and a juridical conception of “conspiracy” when it drew up charges against Savarkar, the Godse brothers, and others, and the limitations of this exercise are all too apparent when we consider that India, as a nation, is far from being done with Gandhi.  We must thus begin with this inexorable fact:  men such as Gandhi have to be killed repeatedly. A cartoonist for the Chicago Sun-Times in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), appears to have understood this well:  a seated Gandhi looks up to the slain civil rights leader and remarks, “The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you.”

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Let us begin, however, with the idea of a “permissive assassination”.  India had emerged as a new nation-state from two centuries of colonial rule and India’s elites, among them some who were Gandhi’s associates, were keen that the country should take its place in the world as a strong nation-state resolutely committed to modernization, industrialization, and the kind of central planning that characterized the policies of the Soviet Union.  Yet Gandhi had initiated a far-reaching critique of industrial civilization and the very precepts of modernity in his tract of 1909, Hind Swaraj, and his critics worried that his pervasive influence would be detrimental to the development of India as an economic and political power.  Gandhi was, though this could scarcely be admitted, a nuisance, even a hindrance; and when Nathuram pulled the trigger, there were certainly others who thought that the man had died a moment not too soon.  When the Government cast the murder as a “conspiracy” in the narrow legal sense, they did not of course mean to implicate the bureaucrats and modernizing elites who, viewing Gandhi as expendable, had secretly conspired to let him die.

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A 32-inch bust of Nathuram Godse installed in the Daulatgang office of the Hindu Mahasabha in Gwalior, central India.  Source:  http://indianexpress.com/article/india/hindu-mahasabha-sets-up-nathuram-godse-mahatma-gandhis-assassin-temple-kicks-up-row-4939797/

If the Bengal Renaissance is, as someone I knew once quipped, the longest continuing renaissance in the world, Gandhi’s assassination seems to have unfolded over seven decades and remains one long unremitting exercise in exorcising him.  In a piece I published a decade ago, I pointed out that every constituency in India—Marxists, Hindu nationalists, rationalists, feminists, Dalits, modernizers, militarists, and the myriad worshippers at the altar of science, development, progress, and the nation-state—“loves to hate” Gandhi.  Notwithstanding all the utterly predictable homilies that issue forth from the mouths of politicians, it is amply clear that very few in the Indian government or the wider middle class have any use for him.  To be sure, his name still constitutes a form of cultural capital, and propriety and national respect alike dictate that his name should be held up with reverence in the presence of foreign dignitaries.  Most of Gandhi’s fellow Gujaratis, in and out of India, have largely effaced him from their worldview.  The guardians of his own Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, from where Gandhi set out on the Salt March, shut close the doors of the ashram in the face of the Muslim refugees seeking protection from the hoodlums baying for their blood in the killings of 2002.

Much more may be written about the rehabilitation of both Vinayak Savarkar and Nathuram Godse over the last decade or two, particularly in the last few years since the BJP has become the dominant force in Indian politics.  A portrait of Savarkar was unveiled in the Central Hall of Parliament in 2003 when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP was in power, and it is scarcely surprising that Narendra Modi should have paid his homage to Savarkar on many occasions, not only after assuming the office of the Prime Minister.

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Tribute being paid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Savarkar on his birth anniversary in the Indian Parliament.  Source:  https://www.telegraphindia.com/1140529/jsp/nation/story_18393712.jsp

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Narendra Modi paying homage to Savarkar on 26 February 2013.  Source:  https://www.narendramodi.in/cm-pays-tributes-to-veer-savarkar-on-his-punya-tithi-5126

In 2015, the Hindu Mahasabha, an organization to which both Savarkar and Nathuram swore their allegiance, announced plans to install busts and statues of Nathuram in Hindu temples across north and western India. Though their plans to build temples in honor of Godse have thus far not materialized, in the central Indian city of Gwalior the Mahasabha has installed a bust of Godse at their office and described it as the foundation stone of a temple which has been named ‘Hutatma Nathuram Godse Mandir’ [Temple of the Martyr Nathuram Godse].  Whatever opprobrium may still be attached in some measure to celebrating Nathuram Godse as a martyr, it is unquestionably the case that the circumstances which made possible a “permissive assassination” have now produced widespread agreement with the views embraced by Nathuram.

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Hindu Mahasabha Bhavan, Gwalior:  Hutatma Nathuram Godse Mandir [Temple of the Martyr Nathuram Godse].  Source:  https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/gwalior-now-has-a-temple-of-mahatma-gandhi-s-killer-nathuram-godse-why-on-earth-was-it-needed-333801.html

Yet, however much India’s elites and middle classes have attempted to relegate Gandhi to the margins, engaging in campaigns of slander, obfuscation, and trivialization, Gandhi also continues to surface in the most unexpected ways.  He is the (sometimes hidden) face of most of many of India’s most significant ecological movements, from Chipko to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, just as he is the face of intellectual dissent, little insurrections, and social upheaval.  Every so often someone comes along purporting to unmask the ‘real’ Gandhi hidden from history.  The hagiographic representation of Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s film of the same name in late 1982 produced in reaction one such wave of supposed exposés of the Gandhi that, in the phrase of one of his most staunch detractors, Richard Grenier, “no one knows”.  We were then led into believing that Gandhi was a fiend who was patriarchal, a sexual puritan, and a crazy luddite; many others have over the decades added to that picture, describing Gandhi as a racist and particularly contemptuous of Africans, an enemy of reason, a foe of his fellow Hindus (to some) and a Hindu wolf in sheep’s clothing (to others), even a ‘friend of Hitler’.  (Gandhi authored two short very short letters to Hitler, neither of which the war-time British censors permitted to reach the intended recipient, urging him to renounce violence.)

Yet Gandhi refuses to disappear:  we heard some years ago of the Gandhian moment in Iran’s Green Revolution and recently dissidents in Turkey have described themselves as inspired largely by him.  There is the Gandhi that appears on the Separation Wall and I daresay that there is the ‘little Gandhi’ that has been thrown up by every revolution over the last few decades.  The Gandhi of the shining bald head, the pair of round spectacles, the timepiece, the walking stick, the sandals, the pet goat, and the Mickey Mouse ears has become an ineradicable part of the national imaginary in India.  Gandhi is everywhere, in every act of nonviolence and, more significantly, every act of violence—a spectral presence to remind us of the supreme importance of the ethical life.

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He may be the “Father of the Nation”, but it is more than his reputation, lately under assault from all the wise ones, that lies in tatters.  A plaque at the entrance to the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, where Gandhi was confined for two years after he issued a call to the British to “Quit India” in August 1942, furnishes a brief introduction to this “monument of national importance”.

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Aga Khan’s Palace, Pune.  Source:  Khushroo Cooper, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kcooper/3074143937/sizes/o/in/photostream/

 

On my visit to this monument in March of this year, I found it in a state of utter dilapidation.  This is far from being India’s only “national monument” that has suffered from neglect and indifference; however, its association with Gandhi most likely ensures that it is not likely to see a revival of its fortunes.  If the murder of Gandhi was a permissive assassination, one celebrated by those elites who were enraged at the thought that the old man would if alive continue to exert an influence upon the affairs of a young nation-state struggling to find its feet in an evil world, permissive neglect seems to be the modus operandi through which Gandhi is slowly being sent into oblivion.

 

The Aga Khan Palace is remembered not only as the place where Gandhi served out the last of the many prison terms handed down to him by the colonial regime.  One of the most moving photographs in the vast archive of images of Gandhi shows a forlorn Mahatma sitting in a corner of the room across from the body of the deceased Kasturba.  She has lately, and not a moment too soon, come into the awareness of many as a woman who did not merely stand by her husband but was in the front ranks of those whose names are inscribed in the annals of anti-colonial resistance.  (No, it is not political correctness that has provoked an interest in Kasturba.) It is here, at the Palace, that their marriage which lasted over 60 years was brought to an end by her demise.  Not only that:  Mahadev Desai, reputedly closer to Gandhi than any of his sons, and often characterized in the Gandhi literature as his Boswell, also died during his confinement at the Aga Khan Palace.  In any other age, Mahadev, an uncommonly good writer and translator with a gift of observation and an exceedingly disciplined mind, would have achieved recognition as something more than the amaneunsis of Gandhi.

 

One might have expected, then, the Aga Khan Palace to be preserved as a treasured place in the nation’s history.  There are nearly a dozen large oil canvases; not all of the paintings are of great artistic merit, but they are a distinct and unique part of the repertoire of visual representations of Gandhi.  The canvas showing Kasturba in the cradle of Gandhi’s lap is not only unusual, but suggests a quiet intimacy between them which may not be visible to those who are determined to establish Gandhi as someone who exercised a tyrannical sway over Kasturba.

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One of the somewhat better preserved paintings, though “Rural India” is not very much on the minds of the Government of India or the country’s elites.  Photo: V. Lal, 2016.

“New Hope for Rural India” is one of the rare paintings of Gandhi that points to his engagement with the “Constructive Programme”.  All of the paintings are clearly in want of restoration:  the colors have uniformly faded, on occasion there are pigeon droppings, and the wooden frames show signs of decay.  Some paintings, shockingly, are now beyond repair.  Gandhi is little more than a white ghost in “A Crusader for Humanity”; many of the other figures are blurred.

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The artist was not attempting to create a blurred effect with his painting on Gandhi as a “crusader for human equality”.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, March 2016.

As is common in India, the museum displays resonate with inspiring slogans and exemplary didactic lessons—except that the unmistakable impression that is conveyed is that once the duty of parading homilies has been fulfilled, they can be easily dismissed as bearing little or no relationship to life.  Gandhi experimented for the greater part of his life with toilets that would work with little or no water.  One display in the Aga Khan museum complex is entitled “bhangi mukti” [freedom for the scavenger], but the lower half of the exhibit has been wiped out; the following panel, on the subject of “Cleanliness and Public Hygiene”, is one big blur.

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The slate of Gandhi’s teachings on cleanliness has been wiped clean!  Photo:  Vinay Lal, March 2016.

Perhaps there is nothing accidental here: notwithstanding the hullabaloo over ‘Swacch Bharat’, the country has for decades blotted out the very idea of public hygiene from its consciousness.  V S Naipual had something nasty to say about this years ago, and however intolerable he is on most occasions, he had the gift both of observation and of writing.  But he was, not unexpectedly, roundly derided for reminding everyone of the shit that mars nearly every Indian landscape.  India, let us recall, holds—and by an exceedingly large margin—the world record for open defecation.  But there is something else about these paintings and displays that grabs the eye. Gandhi, even as he wrestled with issues of the greatest gravity, was always supremely attentive to the minutest details.  Here, at a museum dedicated to his life, the aesthetic sensibility is entirely lacking; not one frame or exhibit suggests any interest on the part of the curators, caretakers, or administrative staff in the extraordinary legacy that is under their charge.  The entire Palace and museum complex reeks of decay, indifferent, and neglect.

 

The shocking state of disrepair in which the Aga Khan Palace—a monument, let us reiterate, dedicated to the nation both for its place in the struggle for self-determination at a pivotal stage, and as the site of events critical to Gandhi’s life—has been allowed to languish is not likely to excite anyone’s attention.  The hostility to Gandhi among the advocates of Hindu nationalism is palpable.  Considerable segments of the RSS have thought nothing of glorifying his assassin, Nathuram Godse, who not coincidentally was born in Pune District.  Whatever the culpability, which cannot be doubted, of previous local administrations, neither the present local nor the state government can be expected to have any interest in reviving an institution intended to celebrate the life of a man whom they view as guilty of appeasing the Muslims and weakening the Hindu nation.  The Government of Maharashtra is securely in the hands of a BJP-Shiv Sena combine; the Shiv Sena’s former leader, the late Bal Thackeray, was often heard deriding Gandhi as a eunuch.  It is also worth recalling that Pune is the site of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a venerable research institution that was ransacked by Shiv Sena goons for none other than the reason that an American scholar, Jim Laine, had some years ago done research there to produce a book on Shivaji which his modern-day acolytes found to be inadequately reverential to their hero.  For those who pride themselves on the imagined glory of their martial traditions, a shrine dedicated to an effete Gujarati bania is just as soon forgotten.

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At this rate, all that will be left of Gandhi is pigeon droppings.  This panel is illustrative of the condition of many of the displays.  Photo:  V. Lal, March 2016.

However, the country’s left intellectuals will not be rushing to register their dismay at the state of this monument either.  Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a piece in the Economic and Political Weekly entitled “The Gandhi Everyone Loves to Hate”, arguing that every constituency in India had a grievance with him.  In the intervening years, it has become almost obligatory to denounced Gandhi as a sexist and racist; and there are even websites that claim that he raped virgins and should have been jailed as a serial sex offender.  Some of his critics had been long been convinced that he had prevented the possibility of a “real” revolution—apparently, unless several million people have not been killed, or the enemy has not been exterminated in a calculated genocide, a genuine upheaval cannot be viewed as having taken place—in India, but lately we have also heard that his empathy for Dalits was nothing but a sham and that he even fortified the British empire in South Africa and India alike.  Arundhati Roy is, of course, much too smart and sophisticated to write a book with a title akin to something like ‘The Gandhi You Never Knew’, but the substance of her critique is effectively the same.  And that critique is nothing other than the stupid idea that the “real” Gandhi has been hidden from history.  If the state of the exhibits at the Aga Khan Palace suggests anything, it will not be long before Gandhi disappears altogether from public view.  Then India can celebrate its “real” independence and manhood.

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A recent trip to Porbandar and Rajkot, where Gandhi spent his adolescent years, set me thinking yet once again about his religiosity.  Much like nearly everything else in his life, Gandhi’s religion defies easy description. Though Gandhi viewed himself as a Hindu, he also maintained that a man could describe himself as a Hindu and yet not believe in God. Many of his most determined foes harbored no doubts about Gandhi’s betrayal of the Hindus, but others were equally certain that he contaminated public life in India by his insistent resort to the paraphernalia of Hinduism—its stories, myths, symbols, and much else.  He almost never visited temples and everything in his conduct suggests that he remained indifferent to the temple-going experience; yet no one made as concerted an attempt as he did to open up Hindu temples to Dalits (or, as they were then known, the Untouchables).  Indeed, it is Gandhi’s attempts to open up the temples to Dalits that earned him the wrath of Ambedkar.  But the conundrums do not end here:  Gandhi venerated the Ramacaritmanas, the immensely popular version of the Ramayana penned by the poet-saint Tulsidas in the late fifteenth century, but he also insisted that passages in Tulsidas which were anathema to one’s conscience and reason—such as the one which characterizes drums, the illiterate, animals, the lower castes, and (disobedient) women as fit to be beaten—ought to be summarily rejected. To the end of his life Gandhi persisted in describing himself as a believer in the idea that Hinduism rightly prescribed duties for each of the castes (varnashrama dharma), but he made it known that he would only bless intercaste weddings. Moreover, much to the chagrin of upper-caste Hindu society, Gandhi displayed absolutely no qualms in picking up a broom and sweeping toilets, work that in Hindu society was considered fit only for the “lowest of the low.”  (As an aside, it is unthinkable that the Aam Aadmi Party could have embraced the broom as its symbol had Gandhi not set the precedent.)  He went so far as to declare that he would only want to be reborn as a scavenger (bhangi) whose very presence would be polluting to an upper-caste Hindu. Perhaps nothing underscores his anomalous standing as a Hindu more than two facts: while M.A. Jinnah—his staunchest political foe and eventually the chief instigator of the idea of Pakistan—persisted in viewing Gandhi as the supreme representative of the Hindu community, Gandhi’s assassin—a Brahmin from Pune by the name of Nathuram Godse—partly justified his act with the observation that Gandhi was not Hindu enough.

 

Unraveling the religious life of Gandhi is thus no trifling matter. Nevertheless, his life—extraordinarily complex in some respects, and equally straightforward from another vantage point—furnishes various windows into his religious thought and practice. The Bhagavad Gita was, to Gandhi, a manual for daily living; and it is in the Gita that we first encounter a description of bhakti yoga, the way to God through devotion. What is often referred to as the ‘bhakti movement’ had swept India from around the ninth to the sixteenth centuries, and in Gandhi’s native Gujarat the most famous exponent of bhakti was doubtless Narasinha Mehta, born into the orthodox caste of Nagar Brahmins around 1414. Much like other bhakta-poets, Narsi (as he is commonly known) was oblivious to caste differences and scarcely moved by bookish learning; and his biographers are agreed that he deeply offended his own community of Brahmins as he would often consort with the lower castes, even singing in the houses of the Untouchables and spending his nights in their homes. Narsi’s fellow Brahmins eventually excommunicated him, but Narsi was no more perturbed on that account: “They say I am impure, and they are right. / I love only those who love Hari [Krishna]. / I see no difference between one Harijana and another.” It is Narsi’s term Harijans, meaning “children of God,” that Gandhi would controversially adopt in the 1920s to designate the Untouchables.

 

Narasimha Mehta No Choro, Junagadh:  The spot where Narsi and his followers gathered in ecstatic devotion to Krishna.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, December 2014

Narasimha Mehta No Choro, Junagadh: The spot where Narsi and his followers gathered in ecstatic devotion to Krishna. Photo: Vinay Lal, December 2014

Narsi Mehta No Choro:  The spot in Junagadh where Narsi and   his fellow bhaktas gathered in devotion to Krishna.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, December 2014

Narsi Mehta No Choro: The spot in Junagadh where Narsi and his fellow bhaktas gathered in devotion to Krishna. Photo: Vinay Lal, December 2014

 

Gandhi’s unbound affection for Narsi’s composition Vaishnava janato is as good a way as any to gauge the Mahatma’s religious sensibility. Vaishnavism—which takes its name from the god Vishnu—was an important part of the religious milieu in which Gandhi grew into adolescence, and in the opening chapter of his autobiography Gandhi describes his mother as a saintly woman for whom a visit to the “Vaishnava temple” was “one of her daily routines.” Gandhi was not particularly interested in the sectarian divide between Vaishnavas and Saivites (the followers of Shiva), and he sought to endow the term “Vaishnava” with a more capacious meaning. Narsi’s bhajan, or devotional song, permitted him to enter into the state of being of a true Vaishnava. Narsi sings: Vaishnavajana to tene kahiye, je pira parayi jaane re / par dukha upkaar kare, to ye man abhiman na aane re. Call only him a Vaishnava, says Narsi, who feels another’s pain as his own, who helps others in their sorrow but takes no pride in his good deeds. The rest of the bhajan further adumbrates the qualities of a Vaishnava, who is pure in thought, action, and speech; despising no one, and treating the low and the high alike, the Vaishnava adopts the entire human family as his own and so works for the liberation of everyone. It is from Narsi, and not from the Gita alone, that Gandhi imbibed the values of nonattachment, humility, and the renunciation of avarice. When, as Narsi says, “all pilgrimages sites are embodied within the body of the Vaishnava” (sakal tirtha tena tanma re), we are better positioned to understand why Gandhi did not share the Hindus’ propensity towards pilgrimage sites.

 

Text of Vaishnava Janato, from a plaque at Birla House, Delhi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, December 2014

Text of Vaishnava Janato, from a plaque at Birla House, Delhi. Photo: Vinay Lal, December 2014

Vaishnava janato was sung at Gandhi’s daily prayer meetings. As Gandhi commenced his almost 250-mile march to the sea in 1930, writes his biographer Narayan Desai, he was handed his walking stick by his close associate Kaka Kalelkar, and Narayan Khare sang Vaishnava janato. The bhajan remained on the lips of Gandhi and his companions throughout the Dandi March. Widely known as Narsi’s Vaishnavajana to may have been to Gujaratis, it was Gandhi who popularized it through the length and breadth of India. It has been set to music by some of India’s famous instrumentalists, among them Shivkumar Sharma, Amjad Ali Khan, and Hariprasad Chaurasia. M.S. Subbalakshmi’s rendition has done much to give it an iconic status in the country’s staggering musical pharmacopeia, and more recent performances by the likes of Lata Mangeshkar have ensured its popularity. One of the more intriguing testimonies to the afterlife of Narsi’s bhajan is the fact that Sahmat, an activist cultural organization with a distinctly left-secular outlook founded in the 1990s, thought it fit to print a large poster of the bhajan in attractive calligraphy and circulate it widely. We may say that Gandhi attempted to live by the ideals described in Narsi’s devotional song, and he would have seen in the song’s popularity at least some faint signs of what he took to be India’s enduring interest in the spiritual life.

 

NOTE:  This piece will also appear in a new blog tentatively called “Gandhi Scrapbook” and to be launched shortly.  See

Gandhiscrapbook.blogspot.com.  Pieces on Gandhi will be posted on both this blog and the new blog until such time as the new blog is well established.

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"Martyrs of Humanity", cartoon by D. R. Fitzpatrick in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12 February 1948

“Martyrs of Humanity”, cartoon by D. R. Fitzpatrick in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12 February 1948

[On the occasion of the anniversary of the death of Mohandas K. Gandhi (January 30)]

There is but no question that Mohandas Gandhi remains, more than six decades after his assassination, the most iconic figure of modern India. He was one of the most widely photographed men of his time; an entire industry of nationalist prints extolled his life; and statues of his abound throughout India and, increasingly, the rest of the world.  Gandhi has been a blessing to cartoonists, ever since he signalled his arrival on the political scene in South Africa; and most Indian artists of consequence over the course of the last half-century, from M. F. Husain and Ramkinkar Baij to Ghulam Muhammad Sheikh and Atul Dodiya, have engaged with Gandhi in their work.  What is equally striking is that this immensely rich visual archive, which encompasses such unusual items as caricatures of Gandhi in Fascist publications, anti-Gandhi Soviet propaganda posters, and lewd comics of Gandhi from Tijuana, Mexico, has altogether escaped critical scrutiny –– barring some recent scholarly work on nationalist prints, and an occasional article on Gandhi and photography.

A distinct iconography began to develop around Gandhi’s figure in his own lifetime.  Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that, deities, the great bhaktas, and the founders of religion such as the Buddha aside, there is no figure in the history of India who could be so readily signified, whether by Gandhi’s trademark spectacles, his walking stick, the sandals he himself made, or the time-piece tucked into a corner of his dhoti.  Cartoonists delighted in those large ears that prompted Sarojini Naidu to dub him ‘Mickey Mouse’, and some of the most striking photographs are those where, in the midst of men dressed in overcoats, silk suits, or other formal wear, Gandhi appears singular in the shining armor of his nakedness.  One cartoonist had the good sense to represent the battle between Gandhi and the forces of violence as the struggle between ‘the shirtless’ and ‘the shirted’.

However, the various representations of Gandhi cannot be interpreted as offering a seamless narrative on his unique place in the national imaginary or as a figure of global protest.  What we do not see is just as important as what we do see.  Printmakers, photographers, painters, and sculptors are alert to different considerations.  The photographers of Gandhi, for instance, were naturally sensitive to the play of light and shadows, while printmakers drew on mythic material that they construed as the grounding of Indian civilization. The interpretation of public statuary leads us to a different set of questions:  where are statues of Gandhi placed, with what effect and consequences, and to what end?  The vast archive can also be viewed in the light of other interpretive strategies.  We can speak, for example, of ‘the seated Gandhi’, ‘the walking Gandhi’, ‘the spectral Gandhi’, and so on.  A consideration of ‘the sartorial Gandhi’ would enable us to gauge his life from the clothes that he wore at different stages of his awakening, and arrive at an assessment of how, after he had made a decision to reduce his clothing to the bare minimum, he came to embody, in the most profound ways, the idea of nakedness in its fullness.

It is, as we approach the anniversary of the Gandhi’s assassination on January 30th, of ‘the martyred Gandhi’ that I shall now speak.  Many have argued that Gandhi had a premonition of his death.  There had been several assassination attempts on his life in the preceding fifteen years.  What is unequivocally clear is that he spoke often, especially in the aftermath of Indian independence and the country’s vivisection, of wanting to die –– as he told his grand-niece Manu after the failed attempt on his life at Birla House at January 20th, ‘On this occasion I have shown no bravery.  If somebody fired at me point-blank and I faced his bullet with a smile, repeating the name of Rama in my heart, I should indeed be deserving of congratulations.’  On January 27th, Gandhi, still recovering from the fast that brought peace to Delhi and conviction to Nathuram Godse that the old man no longer deserved to live, told the visiting American journalist Vincent Sheean, ‘It might be that it would be more valuable to humanity for me to die.’  Yet, at other times Gandhi had, with equal assurance, declared that he wished to live for 125 years.

Some still dispute whether Gandhi died with the name of Rama on his lips.  The front cover of the 25 January 1970 issue of Illustrated Weekly of India echoes the confusion and shock experienced by all those around him; unusually, the revolver seems almost suspended between the assassin’s hands, though by all accounts Godse executed the task with firm and efficient resolve.  Indian printmakers went to work almost immediately after Gandhi’s death, likening him to Christ and Buddha:  though Gandhi was no founder of a religion, he seemed to some of his contemporaries to have had a similar impact on those who encountered him or had some awareness of his teachings.  These printmakers borrowed effortlessly, recognizing no cultural boundaries.  Gandhi adored Michelangelo’s Pieta and would have been humbled by the comparison.

Gandhi was also a world historical figure and his death was registered across the globe.  In the United States, the eminent cartoonist D. R. Fitzpatrick, long associated with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was reminded of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  His cartoon, ‘Martyrs of Humanity’, points to the place that Gandhi had come to occupy in the American imagination.  One doubts very much that the nation-state meant to Gandhi what it meant to Lincoln, but the image provokes precisely such questions.  Two decades later, another assassination would shake the world.  More so perhaps than any other cartoonist, Bill Mauldin of the Chicago Sun-Times captured the poignancy of the killing of another architect of non-violent resistance.  In his famous cartoon, published in April 1968, an avuncular-looking Gandhi stretches out his hands towards Martin Luther King in a show of solidarity and says, ‘The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you.’  Men such as Gandhi, who knew better than most the art of dying, have to be assassinated repeatedly.

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(First published under the same title in Sunday Times of India, 27 January 2013, p. 9)

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